Budget clash could clarify voters' choices

By IAN DONNIS
Posted 9/24/20

For a sense of how Rhode Island progressives are feeling more muscular, consider how Reclaim RI staged a news conference outside the Statehouse last week to speak against an "austerity budget."; The conventional wisdom on Smith Hill is that without

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Budget clash could clarify voters' choices

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For a sense of how Rhode Island progressives are feeling more muscular, consider how Reclaim RI staged a news conference outside the Statehouse last week to speak against an “austerity budget.”

The conventional wisdom on Smith Hill is that without another big relief package from Washington, draconian cuts will be required to close a roughly $900 million current-year deficit. But now that progressives scored a sting of primary victories last week, they’re amplifying a message that the budget shouldn’t be balanced on the backs of vulnerable Rhode Islanders.

To close the deficit, they cite a series of potential revenue sources – higher taxes on the well to do, pausing the car tax phaseout, and using rainy day money and part of the federal CARES Act.

Gov. Gina Raimondo, legislative leaders and Republicans are unlikely to support tax hikes, at least in the state income tax. Regardless, the emergence of a more robust progressive General Assembly presence could give voters clearer choices in future elections, by offering an unapologetically different policy approach than the establishment Democrats who have long ruled the legislature.

Filippi on ‘capital flight’

Conservatives and liberals continuing to debate the extent to which affluent Rhode Islanders leave the state in search of tax havens. RI House GOP Minority Leader Blake Filippi believes capital flight is a real problem, and he remains opposed to raising taxes on affluent residents as part of a deficit-reduction plan.

“I don’t want to say our tax rates are off, but what you get for tax rates are off,” he said on Political Roundtable on The Public’s Radio last week. “We pay a fair amount of taxes in this state. We have terrible roads, our schools are failing, a lot of the money goes out the back door because of government inefficiencies. So I think a lot of people say, ‘Why should I pay more?’ when they’re not getting a lot of bang for their buck. If they saw government operate efficiently and not waste their money, maybe they’d be more willing to put more into the pot. But, frankly, I think government needs to be reformed before we can start saying we can dig into people’s pockets more.”

Speaker swirl

The November state rep race between Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and GOP rival Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung is starting to intensify. So an email about the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus’ fall fundraiser – the appropriately named “Making Waves” – sent a buzz through the state’s political class.

The email notes how two teams of four state senators (Dawn Euer of Newport, Gayle Goldin of Providence, Josh Miller of Cranston, and Ryan Pearson of Cumberland) and four state reps (Edie Ajello of Providence, Gregg Amore of East Providence, Liana Cassar of Barrington, and Robert Craven of North Kingstown) will help the Women’s Caucus to raise funds.

“These much-needed funds will be spent on our endorsed candidates’ general election campaigns and will fund future initiatives as we look towards the 2022 election cycle,” the caucus – whose candidates enjoyed a high rate of primary success – said in the email.

What’s really causing a stir, though, is how Amore and Craven are considered potential rivals for the speakership, to House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi of Warwick, if Mattiello loses his state rep seat in November.

(Asked for comment, Amore said, “I was an original donor to the caucus and Rep Ajello reached out and asked me to be a part of this fundraiser. I assume Bob and I were asked because of our strong support of many of the issues the caucus has supported and does support. It’s an even year so speaker speculation comes with each story. I’m getting used to it.”)

Progressives’ primary lessons

Speaking of the primary, progressives demonstrated their skill at training a cadre of new campaign managers, identifying bold issues, and staging an effective ground game in a number of districts. Is there a lesson there for the Rhode Island Republican Party, which has struggled for years to increase its legislative presence? For now, the GOP has nine seats in the House and five in the Senate.

Filippi attributes the progressives’ success in part to a shift in the Democratic Party. At the same time, he points to the presence of many lawmakers he characterizes as DINOs (Democrats in Name Only) as evidence of stronger-than-perceived conservative sentiment in Rhode Island.

“I think it’s difficult sometimes to throw shade on Republicans when they’re running against someone who has very similar policy perspectives,” Filippi said on Roundtable. “And I’d also add that maybe one of the reasons the progressives are doing so well isn’t from an ideological perspective. It’s because the conservative Democrats are frankly making it easy for progressives to get elected because they’re doing bad things up here – the allegations of corruption, the insider handouts, the giveaways to corporations. Those aren’t conservative policies, and maybe there’s a lot of conservatives out there who are eschewing conservative Democrats because they’re, frankly, behaving badly.”

Matt Brown update

Matt Brown tried catching lightning in a bottle amid reports of Gov. Raimondo’s poor approval rating in 2018; she wound up smoking her under-funded rival in the gubernatorial primary that year. But Brown vowed to stay in the fight – and he fulfilled that promise by emerging last year as one of three co-chairs of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative. Now, that the Co-op and like-minded progressive groups are a force, it’s not a stretch to think that Brown might mull a gubernatorial run for 2022, when the office is due to become open.

Brown was a rising star when he won election as secretary of state way back in 2002. But he flamed out during a 2006 run for U.S. Senate and pursued a different path in DC before returning years later to RI. In keeping with his past interests, Brown now serves as executive director and co-chair of the Renew New England Alliance, a nonprofit activist group.

So is he going to look at another gov run? “I don’t know,” Brown told me, adding that he’s focused for now on trying to get Co-op candidates who face November rivals over the finish line.

Mattiello vs. Fenton-Fung

Speaker Mattiello and GOP rival Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung are ramping up their production of campaign fodder. A new Fenton-Fung video uses humor and a series of past controversies to rap the Democratic speaker. Mattiello counters with a video touting his Cranston bona fides and his signature car tax phase-out.

This is the race writ small. After six years as speaker, Mattiello can cite accomplishments, but a bit of gum has also stuck to his shoes, as the saying goes. Fenton-Fung has the benefit of being a fresh face (and happens to be married to the well-liked mayor of Cranston). Fenton-Fung will likely get the anti-abortion vote, since Mattiello – although he voted against it – allowed last year’s reproductive rights bill to come to the House floor.

With all this stuff in the mix, some observers believe the most decisive factor will the coming-up-fast trial of former Mattiello campaign operative Jeff Britt, slated for Oct. 5, with the audio set to be broadcast via YouTube.

Judiciary diversity

House GOP Leader Blake Filippi said Gov. Raimondo is dragging her feet in choosing from among his nominees for a vacancy on the Judicial Nominating Commission. Speaking on Roundtable, Filippi called for more diversity among both the judiciary and the JNC.

Responding to the GOP leader’s critique, Raimondo spokeswoman Audrey Lucas offered this statement: “There is no statutory timeline for this appointment. The minority leader has submitted three different lists of candidates for this JNC vacancy, the most recent of which was submitted just a few weeks ago on August 31. The governor plans to make this appointment in the near future.”

Poverty’s bite

The Economic Progress Institute draws these takeaways from some of the latest Census data:

“Rhode Island’s overall poverty rate in 2019 was the 2nd highest in New England with 110,000 – more than 1 in 10 Rhode Islanders struggling to afford basic needs. However, the 2019 data do not reflect the economic hardship currently experienced by Rhode Islanders due to COVID-19. The one-year picture masks the deep disparities in poverty levels among communities of color in our state. The most recent 5-year Census data (2014-2018) show that over 1 in 5 Black Rhode Islanders and over 1 in 4 Latinx residents live in poverty. Black and Latinx poverty rates are roughly twice (Black and Multiracial) or three times (Latinx) the poverty rate for Whites. And, when not broken out by subpopulation, Asian poverty rates fall in the middle at roughly 16 percent.  White Rhode Islanders are the only racial group in Rhode Island to experience underrepresentation in poverty, making up 73% of the state population, but only 50% of people in poverty. All other racial/ethnic groups – Black/African American, Latinx, Asian, and Multiracial – experience the inverse, an overrepresentation of those in poverty. Latinx poverty rates are twice that of their share of the state population. Overall, the data highlight that poverty does not fall evenly across different racial and ethnic groups.”

Ian Donnis is the political reporter for The Public’s Radio, Rhode Island’s NPR member station. Listen at 89.3 FM or visit www.thepublicsradio.org. You can sign up for weekly email delivery of Ian’s column each Friday by following this link: www.lp.constantcontactpages.com/su/PriKkmN/TGIFsignup.

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